Great bangers and mash

I saw Nigella Lawson on Live with Regis and Kelly yesterday morning. It was memorable for one thing: when Regis asked how London restaurants are these days, Nigella replied, "London restaurants are still lovely. And every bit as good as New York restaurants. And I have the knife, by the way." Or something similar to that.

It's a truly touchy subject - British cuisine. Ever since Tony Blair came into power the UK has been declared the land of the hip - it's the Swinging Sixties all over again, but this time with Kate Moss - but no one really talked about the food. Last weekend one of M.'s friends remarked how, when M. had been living in London, he'd come back on his visits 'shrunk', stay in New York for two weeks and regain his appetite and figure, go back to London, come back shrunk, stay in New York and gorge etc. etc. It's true M. was definitely not eating as well as he does now (in spite of my pitiful culinary efforts, he is still managing to look 'unshrunk'). This week a friend who had visited London recently did not say anything terribly flattering about the cuisine. So why is it all so bad - or is it really all that bad?

I'm not a food historian. There are people who have written great books on the history of British cuisine. But I have my own theories.

Britain was a great power for quite a long time, so it is fair to say the 'decline' of its cuisine was in fact a fall from grace. Samuel Pepys, a 17th century diarist and renowned public figure, wrote extensively in his famous diaries about the food he ate, and the pies his wife Elizabeth would make - all of which featured incredibly dear ingredients such as spices and displayed a varied diet of meat, fish and fowl. The average Englishman was extremely well fed compared to his European counterparts. The Royal Family celebrated their Christmas dinner with swan, although turkey was later introduced in the late 19th century. The regions had their own strong culinary traditions which continue on to this day - the Scots have their oatmeal porridge and haddocks for breakfast, the English continue with their fry ups of egg, bacon and sausage.

The World Wars hit the British Isles hard, especially in culinary terms: the British experienced their first food rationing in 1918, and again in 1940, ending in 1954. The British economy was in ruins for much of the Fifties and the Sixties, due to its fixed exchange rate which created a huge trade deficit. The IMF had to bail out the UK during the Seventies. Huge waves of industrial strikes went through - from coal miners to rubbish collectors - during the Eighties. And in 1992, the UK had to withdraw from the exchange rate mechanism of the EEC, at great cost to its economy and the average British taxpayer - people were laid off left right and centre. It's only fair to say there weren't many people thinking about the best food to eat at that point.

The revival of good British food has been steady since then. I was in the midst of the 'Ciabatta Revolution' of the mid to late Nineties, when a leading grocery chain made sundried tomatoes, olive oil and ciabatta a necessity to the middle class household. Since I was working in London during this time, I had the means to witness some spectacular restaurants, as well as some terrible interpretations of different cuisines. There was a period of time when, thanks to Sir Terence Conran, nearly every new trendy restaurant served Japanese food. There were attempts to fancy up bangers and mash (use onion gravy and apple and spice sausages). Fish and chips were battered in beer and olive oil, served with tartar sauce. Pubs were serving oysters. Men decided they needed to cook and speak with a funny Essex twang. Even Delia Smith, the lady who taught people how to boil eggs in the Eighties, had to learn how to use fenugreek. It was all getting a bit ridiculous, but experiments had to be done. Of course, all this while, the Brits were still big fans of Indian curries.

I think now is a period where Brits are feeling a little bit more comfortable about eating different foods, but there is now, thanks to the BSE crisis, a desire to find their own culinary roots - Rick Stein for example, has made several successful television series about British culinary 'heritage'. And if that is best represented by a plateful of Cumberland sausage and mashed potatoes, I don't think any one will be too upset about it. The next time I visit London, it'll be fun to see how the restaurants have changed, if at all.

12:12 PM |